"This is an old-school Fire Emblem, for better and worse, but mostly for the better."
Before the Fire Emblem series attracted the attention of the masses with Fire Emblem Awakening, the series was known for its deep tactical RPG gameplay, and for being an absolute ballbuster. Awakeningís easier difficulty made it attractive for newcomers. However, some dedicated fans were unhappy with this new direction, which is why the follow-up Fates was split into the easier Birthright and the harder Conquest. Now, the Fire Emblem series returns to its roots in Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. Shadows is a remake of the 1992 Japan-only Fire Emblem Gaiden, the second game in the series. Gaiden contained multiple new elements that would not reappear in the series for some time. 25 years later, Shadows looks to combine both new and old elements together, and I believe Intelligent Systems have been successful in making a fresh game for this day and age.
The story of Shadows revolves around Alm and Celica, two childhood friends separated by circumstances out of their control. Both characters are raised in different ways: Alm learns combat, and Celica seeks guidance from the gods. Eventually, they leave their homes for their own purposes, inspired by the way they were brought up — Alm wishes to fight to protect his country, whereas Celica leaves to make a pilgrimage to the Goddess Milaís temple. Along the way, you begin to learn that Alm and Celica may be a lot more important to the two countries, Zofia and Rigel, than they both realize.
You can feel the storyís drama from the opening cutscene. Within the first 30 seconds, one of the gameís major characters dies, and you soon discover the purpose of your journey is to find out how this happens. For the most part, Almís story more closely follows the traditional Fire Emblem formula: Two kingdoms, one good, one evil. Evil kingdom/empire invades good kingdom, a resistance movement starts with you as leader, etc. I found myself much more interested in Celicaís story, which involves her fighting against the forces of an evil god. It felt more refreshing. I would've liked to have seen Alm and Celica interact more. I know their armies are separated from each other, but it would have helped out a lot to have more of the story focused on their relationship.
The graphics are pretty good on the 3DS, and match the quality of Fates. One area it improves in are the combat animations, which are much smoother, but because of this, the gameís framerate stutters on occasion. Normally it happens in forests where it dips down to an absurd level. It happened even on my New 3DS, so I canít speak for what might happen on a regular 3DS.
If you donít count last yearís Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, this is the first Fire Emblem to feature (almost) full voice acting. Every character apart from minor quest-givers has voiced lines. Itís a decent dub too, especially given the amount of dialogue throughout the game. For music, Echoes uses remixes from Fire Emblem Gaiden that are pretty faithful to their original Famicom counterparts. One of my favourite moments was realizing that the standard battle music for Celicaís army has been in Super Smash Bros. for years, and itís a track I've always enjoyed.
Character interaction is a big part of Fire Emblem, and Shadows continues that tradition. After the absolutely insane number of characters in Awakening and Fates, you may find the relatively small armies of Alm and Celica to be underwhelming. However, this allows you to get a lot more familiar with the cast. Interactions feel a lot more genuine, as there are fewer support conversations per character. To me, this makes them feel more natural. Support conversations now happen on the battlefield, just like older Fire Emblem games. My favourite example from the support conversations is Clair, one of your Pegasus Knights, conversing with Alm and Gray, a villager who joins Alm's army early on. These interactions involve a love triangle with Alm and Gray; Clair is clearly trying to get close to Alm while pushing Gray away. As these support conversations advance, Clair begins to accept Gray's feelings. It's a nice, natural progression to the characters' relationships with each other. They also progress with the story, and because of this, it feels like the characters are getting to know each other much better throughout the game.
Just as with Gaiden, Shadows has a ton of new changes that might throw even the most diehard Fire Emblem fans for a loop. One of the series' staples, the weapon triangle, has been removed. Long time fans will need to readjust to this, but it doesn't change too much. Its absence actually makes the game much simpler, and stats now feel like they count for something. Weapons have also changed drastically. Each character will come with a basic weapon that provides no bonuses, but throughout the game you can pick up new weapons with additional stats by examining towns and fortresses on the world map. Each weapon has its own skill set that can be unlocked the more you use it. Iron lances have a skill that upgrades your strike power and provide a dodge bonus. Steel lances can get you a skill that allows you to deal more damage to armoured units. Knowing what weapon you want to use and when adds another layer of strategy to the game.
Another addition is Milaís Turnwheel. This allows you to rewind time, and you can go back as far as you like to retake a turn and hope for a better result. For example, if you accidentally move a weak unit into range, you can rewind time to redo their move. If a unit dies through some kind of bad luck like a critical or a low hit chance, you can rewind the enemyís turn and hope they survive. You can also use it if you need to kill an enemy unit. Milaís Turnwheel prevents a lot of frustrating map restarts through bad luck, but only if you upgrade it by finding cogs throughout the maps.
A whole new element to this game is dungeons. These give you the opportunity to grind for experience and money; they also provide new items and the opportunity to visit springs, where you can increase stats for a limited number of uses. Dungeons are also good places to look for chests that contain many useful items. Enemies in dungeons can be seen on the overworld, and when you make contact with them, you will be taken into a standard Fire Emblem map to fight them. However, the game's fatigue system stops you from grinding too much. Once a unit reaches a certain point (indicated by a frowning face), its HP will be halved until its fatigue is cured. You can cure fatigue by eating food, not having the unit engage enemies for a few rounds, or by giving an offering to the Mila Idols in the dungeons. Mila Idols also allow you to change a character's class, making them invaluable.
Speaking of classes, many of Almís first units start off as Villagers, which can change into a huge variety of roles. Take advantage of this fact to help Alm get a more balanced army. Celicaís army is more or less fixed with only a couple of opportunities to tweak which classes you get. You cannot change a unitís class once youíve chosen a path, and thereís no way to branch off as with previous games. While I preferred Celica's story, I liked controlling Alm's army more due to the variety of units he could potentially have at his disposal thanks to the Villager units.
When youíre engaged in combat, youíll notice the support system from the older games returns. This helps immensely, providing higher hit rates and/or crit chances, and this is vital as hit rates are not always what they seem to be in this game. I have never missed so much with an 80%-90% chance in any other Fire Emblem game. This is highlighted best through Alm's childhood friend Faye. She has a support with Alm which grants her a massive hit rate increase as well as a higher crit chance. When I made her into a Cleric, the normal 60% hit rate Nosferatu jumped up to 80% with a critical hit chance of above 30% due to ĎAí support from Alm. This made Faye an absolute monster and a shining example of this gameís support system working.
Terrain has become even more important in this entry. Previously terrain gave menial bonuses, but in Shadows, it's practically essential for survival, especially on higher difficulties. Forests provide -40 Hit chance, which is huge, especially early in the game, and graves are larger still. On top of this, enemy attacks will cause scratch damage, so it's vital to improve your dodge chances since this ignores your defense stat. Fortunately, magic attacks bypass terrain debuffs. This is because they have a fixed hit rate, and cost health to use, but attacking through the terrain comes at multiple costs. Mage units are otherwise extremely powerful.
Though I mentioned earlier that Intelligent Systems did a good job of mixing new mechanics in with the old ones, some outdated elements still show through. One of the main issues I had with the game was its difficulty spikes. You could cruise through one map easily, then the next would make you want to pull your hair out in frustration. These are sporadic and at times annoying. One map asks you to go through a slow, poisonous swamp to reach the enemy army. Your path is blocked by a Cantor, one of the most annoying enemy units I have ever encountered in a Fire Emblem game. They can summon as many as 8 enemy units at one time, and they usually sit on a tile that heals them and provides them a dodge bonus. Situations like this are beyond frustrating. When I want a map to end as soon as possible because of a tedious mechanic, thatís never a good thing.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a worthy entry to the series, and it helps bring attention to one of the seriesí oft-forgotten games. It might not have the impact of its two 3DS predecessors because its old Famicom roots still show through, but this is still a Fire Emblem game worthy of your time, especially if you want a glimpse into the history of the series. This is an old-school Fire Emblem, for better and worse, but mostly for the better.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.